There's an unlimited number of unlimited plans
The good news is that, after years of having to pay per gigabyte, unlimited plans are now the norm at all of the major U.S. wireless carriers. The bad news is that, somehow, those same companies have managed to create different categories of unlimited.
What's happening now: At the low-end, some have data caps before speeds are throttled. At the high-end, many come with premium video services (the latest battleground).
The bottom line: You'd think unlimited was an absolute, like "infinite." But even with unlimited data, you will have to read the fine print to make sure you are getting what you want and not paying for things you don't need. Here's what each is offering:
1. AT&T: The biggest challenge with AT&T's unlimited plans is that the options and combinations keep changing.
- With the closing of its Time Warner deal, AT&T has revamped its lineup to focus on two new plans, unhelpfully dubbed "Unlimited & More" and "Unlimited & More Premium."
- The latter of those includes an add-on service like HBO, Cinemax or Showtime, or a music service like Pandora Premium.
- AT&T also offers other free or discounted video services to its wireless customers.
2. Sprint: The nation's No. 4 carrier, which is in the process of trying to sell itself to T-Mobile, has been experimenting with all kinds of promotions and offers, though most are limited-time plans.
- Its cheapest option, a $15-per-month unlimited plan, was offered for just one week.
- It currently is offering 4 lines of unlimited for $25 per month each — and a free 5th line — but that offer is also in its "final days," according to Sprint's website.
3. T-Mobile: T-Mobile's plans are probably the simplest to understand.
- The standard plan is called T-Mobile One, while a higher-end option T-Mobile One Plus offers higher-quality video and high-speed tethering.
- If you want the free Netflix option, you need to have at least two lines on a T-Mobile One plan.
4. Verizon: In its latest ad campaign, Verizon actually boasts about the fact that it now has a bunch of unlimited plans and you can now mix and match them within a family plan.
- It has the "go unlimited," "beyond unlimited" and "above unlimited" plans with the pricier options adding higher-quality data, faster hotspot tethering and more international roaming options.
My thought bubble: The wireless carriers always want some point of differentiation they can tout to distinguish their plans. In the old days it was the number of voice minutes or texts, then the amount of data. Now it's the use of things like video services to ensure there's more than one price point.
Go deeper: The Verge has a comprehensive look at all the options from each of the major carriers.